Accessibility links

Russia Report: October 27, 2004

27 October 2004, Volume 4, Number 42
By Paul Goble

President Vladimir Putin's plan to reduce the number of territorial units in the Russian Federation and the debate around it reflect the continuing influence of three myths about the nature of Russian federalism. Both individually and collectively, these myths not only have detracted attention from the core problems of the Russian political system but have also made the resolution of these problems even less likely.

That is the conclusion offered by Russian social scientist Mikhail Afanasev in an essay entitled "The Russian Federation: A Weak State and the 'Presidential Vertical.'" His article, posted on this week, is featured in a new two-volume collection, "The Country After Communism," issued by Moscow's Institute of Law and Public Policy.

In his wide-ranging essay, Afanasev argues that Russian federalism has been described and defined over time largely in terms of three competing and distorting myths, all of which are the products of "conscious political mythmaking" by self-interested elites.

The first of these myths is that federalism is a means of resolving the country's nationality problems. That myth arose in the Soviet period, but Afanasev says, "In the framework of the Soviet system, ethnic federalism was deprived of its own content and subordinated to the logic of the functioning of the communist nomenklatura."

When the Soviet system collapsed, he continues, local elites attempted "to breathe life into the imaginary forms of a federation of national states." But these efforts simply underscored the absence of any logic of ethnic federalism in Russia.

On the one hand, this myth contributed to the elevation of the idea of national self-determination to a central role in state building, thereby turning the Russian Federation into one where treaty relationships rather than constitutional principles predominated. Not surprisingly, Afanasev says, non-Russian elites used this as a cover to advance their power.

But on the other hand, the asymmetrical quality of the post-Soviet federation not only created tensions between the so-called national republics and the "Russian" oblasts and krais, but also led to a situation in which some constituent elements of the federation were subordinate to other elements in a matryoshka-doll-like fashion.

To a certain extent, this myth began to be dispelled by Moscow's actions beginning with the 1993 constitution and running through the 1996 federal law on national-cultural autonomies. The latter document, Afanasev says, "marked a departure from Soviet ethno-political particularism" and from the "ethnocratic" principle some nationalist elites had attempted to use to build their power.

The second myth, Afanasev says, is that federalism is "a synonym and equivalent of democracy" itself. Two groups propagated that idea in the late 1980s and early 1990s -- the ruling elites of the regions who saw this myth as making a contribution to their power and democratic activists who believed that Russia could only become a democracy if it became a federation.

Afanasev suggests that everyone looking at Russian political development should remember that "the democratic movement in the USSR unified not only liberal elements but also all possible opponents of the central 'imperial' power who were struggling for local 'sovereignty''' -- but not necessarily for democracy.

But it soon became obvious that the arguments about local sovereignty were arguments "not about the rights of citizens but rather about the division of power" between local rulers and Moscow. Consequently, "decentralization and localization of power were not accompanied by the consolidation of civil society," but rather created conditions in which local elites could oppose the institutionalization of democratic norms coming from the center.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Russian government simultaneously began to recognize what was really going on, Afanasev writes, and Moscow moved to counter the trend via legislation that reaffirmed the primacy of central law. Also, at about the same time, Russian liberals recognized that federalism does not necessarily produce democracy and began to support the center against the regions.

The third myth, Afanasev suggests, is that "the primary cause" of the weakness of Russia is "the asymmetric and treaty-character" of its federal relationships. Of course, he continues, neither the existence of asymmetrical relationship nor the treaty-like nature of ties between the center and the regions is entirely a myth.

But, Afanasev insists, the content and meaning of these relationships far more often has been the subject of myth making than of analysis. And this myth making, he suggests, has been part of "the revenge of the central ruling elite" against regional elites whom the former believe have too much power.

From the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia's Vladimir Zhirinovskii in the early 1990s through Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov at the end of that decade to President Putin now, it has been an article of faith in Moscow that asymmetrical federalism weakens the state and that the federal units need to be reduced in number through consolidation.

Afanasev calls attention to one aspect of Putin's biography that he implies may help to explain the vehemence of the current Russian president on this point: Putin is the first ruler in Moscow since the death of Stalin who did not spend at least part of his career in charge of a region or republic.

However that may be, Afanasev continues, "no one has explained" just how the abolition of asymmetrical federalism will contribute to "the development of a democratic federation." What it will do, however, is quite obvious, he says. In addition to creating administrative chaos and political confusion, it will be the occasion for the elimination of elections in the regions.

Putin's proposal to end direct elections of governors has sparked a great deal of controversy, but as Afanasev points out, the link between consolidating regions and ending gubernatorial elections has been a staple of such proposals again from Zhirinovskii through Primakov.

Suggestions that consolidating regions and ending elections will also consolidate democracy should be recognized for what they are, a cover for something else, Afanasev argues. And consequently, he says, "it is better to listen to Zhirinovskii" -- who has linked those two steps to "the restoration of an imperial state system" -- than to others who act as if there is no connection.

Confusion about that, Afanasev concludes, has kept Russians from focusing on what Russian federalism really is and what the reforms now on offer fail to acknowledge.

"Our practical federalism arose as a historical form of the decentralization of the Soviet nomenklatura," he writes. And the myths about it, he says, have had the effect of detracting attention from what Afanasev calls "the unbearable weakness of the state," a weakness rooted not so much in the Soviet past as in Russian cultural traditions.

Consequently, any efforts to overcome the weaknesses now being blamed on the nature of Russian federalism will be do little to help. Indeed, Afanasev concludes, "they will be the equivalent of dousing a fire with kerosene."

Paul Goble, former publisher of "RFE/RL Newsline" and a longtime Soviet nationalities expert with the U.S. government, is currently a research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia.

By Robert Coalson

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and Transportation Minister Igor Levitan told a cabinet session that a new economic entity, the state-private partnership (GChP), could provide a breakthrough for the Russian economy and, especially, for the transportation sector. To take just one example, according to RBK on 20 October, Russia currently has 890,000 kilometers of roads, but only 36 percent of them meet Transportation Ministry standards. Experts cited by the agency said the country needs at least 1.5 million kilometers of high-quality roads to meet its economic-development goals.

To mention another example, the construction of crucial bridges across the Volga River in Ulyanovsk, Saratov Oblast, and Volgograd has been postponed for years now because of funding delays. In Ulyanovsk, there is one bridge across the river that dates from the tsarist era, while the new bridge has been under construction for more than 12 years and will require another $300 million in financing, "Profil," No. 38, reported. The government sees the GChP as a potentially useful mechanism for building ports, airports, tunnels, pipelines, and railroads as well.

But in a country where the government is better-known for "managing" than cooperating, and where corruption threatens every aspect of the state, the idea has been greeted with resounding skepticism. "Profil" editorialized that the best-known example of "state-private partnership" in Russia at present is the Yukos affair. It also recalled the unfortunate experience of the high-speed rail line between Moscow and St. Petersburg, in which "not a single train ever set off, but the money allocated to the project zoomed away at such high speeds that to this day no one knows where it went."

Although the legislative framework for the GChP in Russia has not yet been developed, Fradkov and others seem to envisage it as similar to the so-called public-private partnership that has been widely and often successfully used in the West for projects from transportation, to health care, education, prisons, and more. That model is designed to create mechanisms to realize long-term, socially important projects that require large initial outlays of capital.

But analysts in Russia have been speculating that the GChP is primarily about achieving the government's goals and controlling the economy than it is about private-sector profits or development. The proposal has been developed under the auspices of the new state Council on Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship, which Fradkov heads. At the council's first session in June, the topic of conversation was President Vladimir Putin's call for business to be more "socially responsible." The council's second session, just days before the cabinet session at which GChPs were discussed, was devoted to the new partnerships. "It is very important that state-private partnership not be turned into a synonym for social responsibility," Industrial Investors Chairman Sergei Generalov told "Ekspert," No. 39, "because these are fundamentally different concepts."

The Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) held a conference devoted to the theme of "social responsibility" on 21 October, the first anniversary of Putin's initial appeal to business on the subject. RSPP Vice President Viktor Dombrovskii told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 22 October that so far most results in this area can be characterized as "voluntary-compulsory charity." The weekly commented that it remains to be seen whether the GChP becomes "a new form of divvying up promising markets or a civilized mechanism for leveraging the resources of the state and private business."

Regardless of the state's intentions, the real threat to the success of GChPs is most likely corruption. "Ekspert" noted that even in the late 19th century, the government had to abandon a similar model in the railroad-construction sector because of massive corruption in assigning state concessions. The current government's track record in the area of competitive tenders likewise inspires little confidence. "At first the state should invite foreign companies that professionally organize tenders to act as its agents," Generalov told "Ekspert." However, Levitan announced on 10 October that the Economic Development and Trade Ministry "has agreed to fulfill the functions of the federal organ reviewing proposals for GChP-based infrastructure projects," RIA-Novosti reported.

Opora business association head Sergei Borisov told "Finansovye izvestiya" on 6 October that he fears the GChP could become nothing more than a mechanism for eliminating competition with the help of government bureaucrats. He noted that the Moscow city government recently handed over 200 plots of land to Sibir Enerdzhi for the construction of gas stations.

Nonetheless, the daily reported that a draft law on GChP concessions could be adopted as early as February and the first major GChP-based projects could be announced in the spring. "Any activity, including state activity, creates many dangers. Including the danger of corruption," Institute of Globalization President Mikhail Delyagin, former economic adviser to Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, told "Profil," No. 38. "We have to fight against corruption, but it is better to undertake a necessary project badly than not at all."

By Robert Coalson

The conflict between oligarch Mikhail Fridman's Alfa Group and the Kommersant publishing house, which is the last major media holding in Russia of self-exiled former oligarch Boris Berezovskii, flared up dramatically late on 20 October.

On that day, the Moscow Arbitration Court ordered the publishing house to pay Alpha Bank 321 million rubles ($11.7 million) in damages after ruling that a 7 July article in "Kommersant-Daily" was libelous, Russian media reported. The judgment was believed to be the largest ever handed down against a media outlet in a libel case, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 22 October.

The conflict -- which pits one of the Kremlin's favorite oligarchs against one of its staunchest opponents -- stems from the banking crisis earlier this summer (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," 2 August 2004). Berezovskii told on 22 October that he has had many offers to purchase the Kommersant group, which publishes "Kommersant-Daily" and several serious weekly magazines and is widely regarded as one of the best journalism companies in Russia. He said that many of the offers have come "from structures close to the Kremlin," including from "organizations connected with" Alfa Bank. He said that when he purchased Kommersant from Vladimir Yakovlev in 1999, Fridman was also vying for the company.

Kommersant General Director Aleksei Vasiliev told the media following the court's verdict that the purpose of Alfa Bank's suit was to destroy Kommersant because Berezovskii had refused to sell it to Fridman. Fridman, for his part, denied that he wants to purchase the company. Alfa Bank board member Aleksandr Gafin told Ekho Moskvy on 21 October that "we never had the goal of purchasing or destroying the newspaper." Gafin also said that the newspaper published the article in question in order to benefit its owner, prompting Vasiliev to tell Ekho Moskvy that he is considering filing a slander suit against Gafin.

In the same interview, Vasiliev said that "among members of the business elite there is a tendency, a desire to pick up points with the authorities by harassing the independent media -- and this tendency is absolutely unpleasant." on 22 October also commented on the "logic" of such reasoning. "The destruction or sale of one of the few remaining major independent mass-media outlets in Russia would nicely decorate the list of services performed by this businessman and his partners for the authorities," the website noted.

State Duma Information Policy Committee Deputy Chairman Boris Reznik (Unified Russia) told "Novye izvestiya" on 22 October that he is concerned about the court's ruling. "In this ruling I see a dangerous precedent," Reznik said. "Not in the outcome of the proceeding, but in the amount of the judgment. In my opinion, this is just an attempt to destroy an undesirable brand. Even if Kommersant is able to pay this amount, some other publisher might fall victim to a similar suit. And if things go that way, we might end up without any independent press at all."

Media watchers too were concerned about the ruling. The "Kommersant-Daily" article contained only one paragraph about Alfa Bank, and it was purely descriptive. The article described a line of about 80 people outside a branch of the bank and quoted some of them as saying that they had tried earlier unsuccessfully to withdraw funds at the bank's downtown main branch. The article also said that about 40 people were queued up to withdraw money at an automatic-teller machine.

Nonetheless, Alfa Bank chose to sue "Kommersant-Daily," even though that newspaper -- unlike many other media outlets -- did not report on rumors that Alfa Bank had been included on a purported Central Bank blacklist of endangered commercial banks. According to Ekho Moskvy on 21 October, Kommersant presented a videotape shot outside the Alfa Bank branch in question as evidence in the case, but the court was not swayed by it and ruled that the article was libelous.

Kommersant has announced that it will appeal the ruling.

By Robert Coalson

On 5 October 2003, Valentina Matvienko, with the heavy support of President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin machine, won a second-round victory with 63 percent of the vote to become governor of St. Petersburg. This week, she marked her first anniversary in power fittingly -- by meeting in the Kremlin with Putin and reporting on her achievements. According to ITAR-TASS on 21 October, Matvienko reported that despite her efforts, progress on the construction of the city's ring road is stalled. "If you continue to work as energetically," Putin reportedly told her, "you will certainly complete the road."

Despite her close ties and unquestioning loyalty to the Kremlin, Matvienko is one of Russia's most popular regional leaders, normally polling about 70 percent support. In a long interview with "Itogi," No. 43, this month, Matvienko explained that she feels "a double responsibility" as governor: "before the people who supported me during the election and before the president, whom I represent in the region."

In that interview, Matvienko demonstrated her unwavering support of the president and staunchly defended his 13 September proposal to replace the direct election of regional governors with a system under which local legislatures approve candidates nominated by the president. Although Putin said the proposal was a response to the Beslan school hostage taking, Matvienko said it actually came at the request of regional leaders themselves who are fed up with the election process. She condemned Russian elections and the political consultants who thrive off them, saying that they use any methods "often including some that are far from legal." She argued that the elections do not allow the people to express their views, but are always won by "the candidate who has the most money, who has the most powerful sponsors." She concluded that victorious candidates spend their terms meeting the obligations they made to their sponsors.

Matvienko sees Putin's proposal as an antidote to Russia's poisoned election system and lauds Putin for being willing to take on the responsibility for selecting regional leaders. Moreover, she argued that the new system will do more to reflect public opinion than direct elections do. "I do not doubt that the nomination of candidates will be preceded by the most serious preparatory work, including monitoring, public-opinion studies, and meetings with local elites and deputies," Matvienko said. "No one will be nominated against the will of the people. That possibility has been excluded. At least in Petersburg. This isn't the kind of city where you can install a person who has been knitted together from above."

Matvienko provoked considerable controversy during this interview with her comments about the Russian political system generally. Asked whether Russia should become a parliamentary republic without a president, she responded: "No, for us that will never do! We are not ready for an experiment like that. The mentality of the Russian person demands a lord, a tsar, a president."

Local human rights advocates in St. Petersburg on 25 October issued a sharply worded call for Matvienko's resignation over this comment, which they denounced as "racist." "The scandalous statement by Valentina Matvienko is another demonstration of the real attitude of the country's leadership toward the people," a statement by For Human Rights read. "And the real sense of the current reforms of state power."

"The representatives of the ruling class do not even consider it necessary to hide their real attitudes toward constitutional democracy or to the majority of their fellow countrymen," the statement said. The activists called on citizens to demand the resignation of "those who speak out against guaranteed constitutional liberties" and, by doing so, to prove to Matvienko that "we are not serfs, not the property of either petty or great tyrants."

Valentina Matvienko: Resume

Born: 7 April 1949

1972: Graduated from the Leningrad Chemical-Pharmacological Institute.

1985: Graduated from the Academy of Social Sciences of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

1989-91: Chairwoman of the Supreme Soviet's Committee on Women, Families, and Children.

1989-92: People's deputy.

1991-94: Soviet and Russian ambassador to Malta.

1995-97: Director of the Foreign Ministry's department for relations with federation subjects, the legislature, and public organizations.

1997-98: Russian ambassador to Greece.

1999-2003: Deputy prime minister.

March 2003-October 2003: Presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District.


23-26 October: Second anniversary of the Moscow theater hostage crisis

25 October: First anniversary of former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovskii's arrest at an airport in Novosibirsk

25 October: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to begin three-day trip to Seoul, South Korea

26 October: A synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad to discuss possible reunification with the Moscow Patriarchate

26 October: President Putin to begin three-day visit to Kyiv

28 October: Federation Council to hold a roundtable discussion of proposed election-law amendments

31 October: Presidential election in Ukraine

November: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to visit Moscow

November: Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov to visit Egypt

14 November: Mayoral election in Blagoveshchensk

14 November: Gubernatorial election in Pskov Oblast and in Ust-Ordinskii Autonomous Okrug

20 November: Sixth anniversary of the killing of State Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova

22 November: President Putin to visit Brazil

27 November: Regular Congress of the Unified Russia party

28 November: Gubernatorial election in Kurgan Oblast

December: A draft law on toll roads will be submitted to the government, according to the Federal Highways Agency's Construction Department

5 December: By-elections for State Duma seats will be held in two single-mandate districts in Ulyanovsk and Moscow

5 December: Gubernatorial elections will be held in Astrakhan, Bryansk, Volgograd, Kamchatka, and Ulyanovsk oblasts

5 December: Mayoral elections in Astrakhan and Murmansk

19 December: Presidential election in the Republic of Marii-El

19 December: Mayoral elections in Severodvinsk and Komsomolsk-na-Amure

26 December: Presidential election in the Republic of Khakasia

29 December: State Duma's fall session will come to a close

January 2005: President Putin to visit Poland for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp

1 February 2005: Former President Boris Yeltsin's 74th birthday

March 2005: Gubernatorial election in Saratov Oblast

May 2005: Commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.